49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh analyzes the game and his team
The San Francisco 49ers are only a few weeks away from the opening of training camp. Unlike 2011, when the lockout shortened the preseason, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff will get a full training camp to evaluate players and implement their systems.
The 49ers finished the regular season at 13-3, won their first playoff game against the New Orleans Saints and advanced to the NFC championship game. A pair of turnovers on punt returns and the inability to convert on third down cost them a chance to go to the Super Bowl.
Expectations for the 2012 squad are sky high, and a full training camp will be a major benefit to the 49ers. The 49ers have upgraded their offensive personnel, while keeping their stellar defense together for the coming season.
The coaching staff of the 49ers is one of the best in the NFL. The full training camp will enable them to work the players and teach them exactly what they want to have done.
Several 49ers have had issues during the spring and in OTAs, while others have taken a step forward in the eyes of Harbaugh. Many other players, in fact most of them, have simply met expectations and are on track with what the coaches want.
Let's take a closer look at 10 key players whose stock has either risen or fallen, as training camp nears.
Darius Fleming was a fine linebacker for Notre Dame
The San Francisco 49ers selected Darius Fleming in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Fleming, an outside linebacker from Notre Dame, was expected to be a backup this coming season.
The 49ers expected Fleming to be a valuable special teams player, but he tore his ACL on the first day of practice at the team's minicamp. Fleming is expected to miss the entire 2012 season.
Michael Crabtree looked great in the 49ers' minicamp
Prior to the 2011 season, Michael Crabtree was often considered a diva, "me-first" type of player. His work ethic and commitment were often questioned. In three seasons in the league, Crabtree had rarely participated in training camp and had never played in a single preseason game.
That perception of Crabtree began to change last year, under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Crabtree showed much more professionalism and dedication to his craft. I believe he realized that Harbaugh would not allow the prima-donna approach that had become synonymous with Crabtree.
In 2011, Crabtree caught 72 passes for 874 yards and four touchdowns. He did, however, frequently have trouble getting open against tight, man-to-man, or press coverages.
In this year's minicamp and OTAs, Crabtree spent much of his time with free-agent wide receiver Randy Moss. The pair were almost inseparable. Moss would share some playing secrets with Crabtree. From all indications, Crabtree was a willing student.
With all of the new acquisitions, Crabtree's numbers in 2011 might actually be less than what he achieved last year. However, look for him to be more effective and a much better player this year. Harbaugh has offered strong praise for Crabtree and his work ethic thus far.
Aldon Smith was a force for the 49ers' defense in 2011
When the San Francisco 49ers selected Aldon Smith with their first-round pick in the 2011 draft, many thought he had gone too high. I was one of those who questioned that pick. I was wrong.
In 2011, Aldon Smith, playing primarily on passing downs, recorded a team-high 14 sacks. His presence as a pass-rusher was a huge boost to the 49ers defense. The pressure he put on opposing quarterbacks allowed the 49ers' defensive secondary to play a much more aggressive, tighter style of defense
Smith had a great season in 2011, but his image has taken a big hit this offseason. Smith has had two major incidents arise that have involved run-ins with the police.
Smith was cited for a DUI in late January. In addition, he was attending a party in June and was stabbed when a dispute broke out and turned violent. Smith was reportedly trying to break up the altercation when he was stabbed. Nevertheless, Smith was again in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Smith's maturity level has come into question, and he must work to repair his image. At the very least, Smith has cost himself some endorsements, but the more important thing is whether he has the maturity to handle his success.
Smith will be the starting outside linebacker, pushing former starter Parys Haralson to the bench. We will quickly see how Smith handles the rigorous job of being an every-down defender as opposed to being a pass-rushing specialist.
I believe Smith will be just fine on the field. What remains to be seen is whether he will also be fine off the field.
Alex Smith had his best season in 2011
Alex Smith had his best season in 2011. He benefited greatly from working with 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh, who instilled a great deal of confidence into Smith. In fact, Smith led the 49ers to the NFC title game and was a play or two away from guiding his team to the Super Bowl.
In his seventh NFL season, Smith had, by far, his best year. He learned a great deal from Harbaugh, who was his mentor. Smith completed 273 of his 445 pass attempts, a 61.3 completion percentage. He also threw for a career-high 3,144 yards.
What set Smith apart, however, was his ball security. He threw for 17 touchdowns against only five interceptions.
Now Smith will have a full training camp to work with and learn from Harbaugh. 49ers' GM Trent Baalke also brought in several new offensive weapons for Smith and Harbaugh to utilize.
Harbaugh has heaped the praise on Smith, who looks poised for his best season yet.
Joe Looney was unable to do much this past spring.
Joe Looney was a fourth-round selection in the recent NFL draft. He was expected to challenge for the open right guard position on the 49ers' offensive line.
Unfortunately for Looney, he has been slow to recover from a broken foot he suffered at the Senior Bowl. He was unable to participate fully in the 49ers' minicamp and OTAs.
Looney has fallen behind the other candidates for the right guard position, Alex Boone and Daniel Kilgore. He appears destined for a backup role in 2012.
Kendall Hunter rushed for 473 yards in 2011
Kendall Hunter was the 49ers' second leading rusher in 2011 with 473 yards on 112 carries. Heading into the 2012 season, the 49ers have a very crowded stable of running backs with Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon, along with Hunter.
Bruce Miller and Rock Cartwright will likely handle the fullback position, although Cartwright could also see a few carries as a halfback.
The outlook seemed bleak for Hunter to receive as much playing time in 2012 as he did in 2011. However, Hunter has been extremely impressive in the 49ers' minicamp and OTAs. Head coach Jim Harbaugh likes what he sees from Hunter, and this could translate into more touches for Hunter.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins has struggled thus far
When the San Francisco 49ers selected wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first pick in the 2012 draft, many thought this was a major reach. However, GM Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh, seemed extremely pleased with the pick.
Jenkins, who comes to the 49ers after playing his college ball at Illinois, has not looked good thus far. He has had trouble with his conditioning, holding on to passes and learning the plays.
Unless the 49ers see a substantial improvement in training camp, do not expect to see Jenkins make much of an impact until at least mid-season.
Alex Boone has been a career backup, but that may change
Alex Boone came to the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2009. Since then, Boone has been a reserve offensive tackle and has worked hard to hone his skills.
Now, with the departure of starting right guard Adam Snyder, Boone has a great chance to step into the lineup. It was expected that Boone would compete with Daniel Kilgore, Mike Person and Joe Looney for the starting job.
However, it appears as though Boone has the inside track, as he worked with the starting unit in the 49ers' minicamp. Boone is a big, physical presence, standing 6'7" and weighing in at 330 lbs..
Jim Harbaugh loves Boone's size and would love to see him plowing holes through an opposing defense. As we head into training camp, it appears as though the right guard position will be Boone's job to lose.
Parys Haralson has lost his starting job
After starting every game he has played in for the past three seasons, linebacker Parys Haralson has been moved to the bench in favor of Aldon Smith.
In 2011, Haralson started all 16 games and made 27 solo tackles along with seven assists. He also had two sacks and forced three fumbles.
However, all of this was not enough to beat out Smith for the starting job. Haralson will be relegated to a reserve role and special teams player.
Randy Moss sat out all of the 2011 season
No player has made more of a positive first impression on the 49ers this year than Randy Moss. The 49ers signed Moss as a free agent after Moss sat out all of the 2011 season.
There have been many, especially in the media, who have questioned this acquisition and expect Moss to implode at some point. However, thus far, Moss has been a model citizen and a great teammate.
Moss has worked with the 49ers' younger wide receivers on improving their techniques. He and Michael Crabtree seem to have formed a very strong bond, as Crabtree is frequently seen talking with Moss.
Moss has also looked good on the field, displaying good speed and hands thus far. Harbaugh has been quite effusive in his praise for Moss. His mere presence on the field will open up the underneath routes for players like Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Mario Manningham, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James to flourish.
In what was once considered a risky move, Harbaugh and Moss seem to be working well together, and Moss is fitting in very well with his teammates.
NaVorro Bowman emerged as a star in 2011
Expectations for the San Francisco 49ers are sky high as we head towards training camp. GM Trent Ballke has strengthened an already very strong team.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff are masterful at getting the most out of their players and developing excellent game plans. They also are quite adept at making in-game or half-time adjustments.
The 49ers look ready to take the next step, which would be a trip to the Super Bowl. 2012 should be a very interesting and exciting year for the 49ers.